Should Teachers Be Banned from Communicating with Students Online?

Increasingly, states and school districts are struggling over how to deal with teachers who communicate with students online via social network websites.  One foolish way to address the issue is via strict bans, such as a law passed in Missouri earlier this year that attempted to ban teachers from friending students on social network websites.  Such laws are likely violations of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and association, and I blogged at the Huffington Post that the law was unconstitutional.  Soon thereafter, a court quickly struck down the law.

The NY Times now has an article out about the challenges in crafting social media policies for teacher-student interaction, noting that “stricter guidelines are meeting resistance from some teachers because of the increasing importance of technology as a teaching tool and of using social media to engage with students.”

There are a number of considerations that schools should think about when crafting a social media policy:

1. The policy should account for the fact that there are legitimate reasons for students and teachers to communicate online.  A teacher might be related to a student, and certainly a law or policy shouldn’t ban parents from friending their children.  Or a teacher might be a godparent to a child or a close family friend or related in some way.

2. One middle-ground approach is to require parental consent whenever a teacher wants to friend a minor student online.  This greater transparency will address the cases where teachers might have inappropriate communication with minors.

3. Clear guidelines about appropriate teacher expression should be set forth, so teachers know what things will be inappropriate to say.  Teachers need to learn about their legal obligations of confidentiality, as well as avoiding invasions of privacy, defamation, harassment, threats, and other problematic forms of speech.

4. When teachers use social network sites in the classroom — or otherwise use blogs and online posting as a teaching device — they should exercise great care, especially when requiring minors to express themselves publicly online.  I’ve seen some class blogs, where students are asked to post reactions to reading or write online journals.  Making students post their views and opinions to the public, especially at such a young age, strikes me as a problematic practice.  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) would protect minors under the age of 13, but teachers should be sensitive to minors 13 and older too.  No minor student should be required to post any personal information or class assignment on a publicly-accessible website without the student’s consent and the parent’s consent.  And all websites that involve student personal information have a privacy policy.

5. Education is key.  I’ve read about a lot of cases involving improper social media use by educators, and they often stem from a lack of awareness.  Teachers think they can say nearly anything and it will be protected by the First Amendment.  The First Amendment law actually gives schools a lot of leeway in disciplining educators for what they say, and educators can also be sued by those whom they write about.  Educators often think that if they post something anonymously, then it is okay or they can get away with it — but anonymity online is often a mirage, and comments can readily be traced back to the speaker.  And educators often set the privacy settings on social media sites incorrectly.  They don’t spend enough time learning the ins and outs of the privacy settings.  These are actually quite tricky — even rocket scientists have trouble figuring them out.

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3 Responses

  1. What a crazy idea, to restrict communication between teachers and children. This is a sham fight. All these priests who have been molesting children for ages – they did not have anything like Facebook. If you really want to keep children safe from their teachers, ban contact in real life. Move to online contact only. Of course, this is a ridiculous proposal – but so is the ban of online communication.

  2. Dissent says:

    There is something misleading – and risky – about considering your teacher a “friend.” Your teacher may be friendly, but s/he is not your friend – s/he is your teacher, and I fear some lines and expectations get blurred – by both parties – by even the use of the word “friend.”

    That said, for some kids from troubled homes, teachers are the only adults in their lives they can turn to, and we need to think about whether we throw the baby out with the bathwater by over-restrictive policies.

    Obviously, given my own blogging history, I agree we should not require students to reveal or share publicly online. But the same holds true for having students swap papers in class. Yes, the Internet never forgets, which can makes things immeasurably worse, but there’s much to be done in the brick-and-mortar building, too.

    And while districts grapple with policies for teachers, states and the U.S. Department of Education have failed to enact enforceable regulations that require districts to use appropriate security measures for sensitive student information and that require disclosure to parents in the event of a data breach.

    Districts need to consider the issue of teacher use of social media, yes, but they also need to look at their own behavior a bit more in terms of what they are doing – or often not doing – to protect student privacy.

  3. Joe says:

    I don’t know why a “friend” can also not be a “teacher.” There are different types of friends and they aren’t all the type who go to the movies with you etc.

    But, we do restrict some kinds of communications between students and teachers. Or are schools not allowed to have teachers in particular not send sexually explicit pictures to them or something? Schools don’t have control over adults overall and not being allowed to send consensual love notes to fellow students is ridiculous.

    So, the schools do have special power to limit student/teacher relationships. The devil is in the details.